Backtrack – Correcting our CoursePosted in Articles
Recently I was lost. I had made a wrong turn and was making great time, but in the wrong direction. After almost an hour of feeling good about the progress I was making, I suddenly realized that I was approaching Fort Wayne, Indiana, instead of Indianapolis. I thought I was going south, but instead I was heading east; and there I was – where I didn’t want to be. The only way to correct the problem was to backtrack.
I lost two hours on that trip—one going in the wrong direction, and one getting back to where I should have been. The good news, however, was that I had realized my mistake, had turned around, and had gone back. Who knows where I might have ended up if I had insisted on my own sense of direction. Only the Atlantic Ocean would have stopped me. Going back was an act of wisdom. I’m so glad I did.
Our culture has long been going in the wrong direction. We have made great progress in technology, but we have not paid attention to our humanness. Existentialism has taught us to indulge ourselves. So we have sacrificed our souls on the altar of self-fulfillment, and we’ve ended up where we should not be. The only problem is, we don’t realize it.
Our indebtedness is staggering, and relationships are strained and fractured. A new generation is emerging that doesn’t know the meaning of self-sacrifice and has never experienced a stable environment. Terrorism is the topic of the day and economics, rather than character and integrity, continues to be our greatest concern. We’ve gone a long way down the wrong road.
The events of September 11 stopped us dead in our tracks, however. Nothing moved—literally. The whole world was in shock, and people began to reevaluate their priorities. Over the past four decades we had told God to get lost – to get out of our courtrooms and classrooms. Suddenly, we watched the Congress singing with heartfelt devotion, “God Bless America.” We were inviting God back into public life. Bibles began to sell again, and people rediscovered their churches. It was a new day for conservatism, and evangelicalism was no longer the villain. It was like we all woke up.
But one year later we’re drifting back to our old ways. It seems like all of our good intentions were merely a knee-jerk reaction. Not for everyone, of course. Yet culturally there is once again a yearning for the good life of yesterday. Congress is bickering over economics again, and for many God has again been moved to the back burner— still available if we need Him, but no longer a priority.
So it appears that we are at a point of indecision. We realized for a while we were going in the wrong direction, stopped the car, and turned around. Yet we’re not so sure we want to go all the way back to where we went wrong. Our existentialism has encouraged us to simply appreciate the moment—so we’re not all that upset about our situation. After all, this is a nice road, too. What does it matter that we’re going in the wrong direction? Well, if you don’t care where you end up—go for it, and have as much fun as you can along the way. But if destination is important, then decision and commitment are crucial. Going back is essential—all the way back, for as long as it takes.
For the apostle Paul this was a “nobrainer.” When dealing with perilous times brought on by a corrupt culture, the answer for him was to go back to godly living and the foundation of truth as found in the Word of God. This was his counsel to Timothy in 2 Timothy, Chapter 3. Timothy was facing perilous times (v. 1) in a culture that was self-indulgent and morally skewed (vv. 2-9). Therefore, Timothy needed to refocus on godliness as a way of life (vv. 10-13) and get back to the Word of God as the basis for truth (vv. 14- 17). Such a message is important for us to hear. We live in similar times and 2 Timothy 3 is the map to point us in the right direction. Its message is unmistakable—go back, go back!
BACK TO OUR ROOTS
Once I asked a man what I should do about a matter, and he simply said, “Just keep on keepin’ on.” Sometimes that is good counsel. In a day when creativity, innovation, and imagination are the stuff of life, staying with the tried and true by remaining faithful and steady can be a breath of fresh air. Why does it always have to be bigger and better, and new and different, and entertaining and exciting? Like a good cappuccino, it seems that we are reveling in the froth with very little concern for substance. Just give me a good cup of coffee.
Timothy was living in desperate times, and the apostle Paul’s advice was to simply “keep on keepin’ on.” It’s so encouraging to hear him say, “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them” (2 Tim. 3:14). Like many of us, Timothy was most likely tempted to cast around for some new method of ministry that would connect better with his modern culture. Even though people were religious, they had lost all sense of genuine godliness (v. 5) and the old ways of reaching them probably didn’t seem effective anymore. It was a challenge that had brought tears to Timothy’s eyes (1:4). Yet, Paul insisted that the old ways were still the best ways. The words “You… continue” are reflective of a Greek verb in the present tense and the imperative mood—which simply means that Timothy was to continue on perpetually and with all seriousness of intent. It was important that he stay steady and keep one eye on the past as he looked to the future.
This portion of Scripture, 2 Timothy 3, is set in the context of the last days—“This know, also, that in the last days perilous times shall come” (v. 1—KJV). Actually, the “last days” are the entire church age from Pentecost to the rapture. It is just that Timothy was living in the beginning of the last days, while it appears that we are living in the end of the last days. The conditions are similar, however, and the temptation to leave the lessons of the past is no less intense. Therefore, what was good counsel for Timothy is equally good advice for us as well.
Today, our existential approach to religious education has led us to be more infatuated with the innovators of the present, than reflective of the giants of the past. My father was a pastor who was committed to the exposition of God’s Word in his ministry. This is what he had learned from the great men of God who had fought the fundamentalist-modernist controversies in the early years of the twentieth century. They in turn, stood on the shoulders of men like B.B. Warfield and J. Grescham Machen, who had carried the torch passed on to them by the likes of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. Furthermore, the writings of these men resonate with the voices of the Reformers, who built on the foundation of the early church fathers, who were a mere echo of the apostles. “Go back,” Paul continues to tell us today, “don’t forget your past.”
The essence of ministry has always been the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul was referring to when he admonished Timothy not to forsake the great doctrines of the faith in favor of stories that merely entertain (4:2-4). For us today, Paul is pinpointing a contemporary problem—where some have been more interested in entertaining the masses than in feeding the flock. As a result, it seems that modern believers are virtually illiterate with regard to biblical doctrine, and know very little of the great events of church history.
The way to the future is to not forget the past. The wisdom of the elders should not be shunned for the infatuations of our peers. Like Timothy, we need to continue in the things which we have learned and have been assured of, knowing from whom we have learned them.
BACK TO THE CENTRALITY OF SCRIPTURE
One of the benefits of going back to our roots after the events of September 11 is that we become less self-centered and more focused on meaningful relationships, including our relationship to God. What had been taken for granted is suddenly given a renewed priority. Family and friends are now the important thing, and an appreciation for God and country is greatly increased.
In like fashion, as those of us in the Christian community go back to our roots, the Scriptures begin to emerge out of the dust of neglect to be reinstated on the pedestal of honor. When we read the Reformers and early church fathers, we discover that the Bible was not just important, it was central and sufficient for all matters of faith and life. So for us, too, the Scriptures have been reinstated as the source of our comfort and inspiration. It is as though they speak to us with a new clarity and urgency. We want to know them as never before because we are drawn
to the truth they proclaim. The Bible is no longer a convenient luxury, it is an absolute necessity.
The apostle Paul instructed Timothy to go back to his roots and realize, “that from childhood” he had known the Holy Scriptures, which were able to make him wise (2 Tim. 3:15). Wisdom is personified in the Word of the living God. It was the authority of Scripture to which Timothy was instructed to return. Also, Paul told Timothy that when he ministered he was to “preach the word” (4:2). There is nothing that can surpass the wisdom of the Scriptures for leading a perilous culture out of the swamp of self-indulgence into the liberating arms of a loving Savior. “It is the Scripture,” Paul, in essence, told Timothy. It is the Scripture, twenty-first century Christian!
Throughout the past several decades, though we have not devalued the Scriptures theologically, we have certainly diminished their importance in our practice of them. In many worship services, the 45-minute Bible sermon has given way to the 20-minute devotional, stuck into a full schedule of music, drama, and personal sharing. Christian counseling has argued for the synergism of the Bible and psychology, with psychology taking the lead. The role of science in our Christian schools and churches has triumphed over the story of Creation, as evolutionary theory sits in judgment over the Holy Scriptures. We in the Christian community have become culture pleasers, not culture challengers. It appears that we prefer the sophistication of secular erudition to the simple truth of God’s Word. But, all of that has led us down the wrong road. If we are truly to go back to where we made a wrong turn, we must return to the authority of Scripture.
For Timothy, the Scriptures were the source and standard of truth. He had known them since he was a child (v. 15), and Paul was simply reminding him of their supreme importance—for him personally, and as the basis of his ministry. There’s no doubt about the fact that the authority of Scripture is Paul’s answer to the perilous times of the last days.
BACK TO SALVATION THAT SAVES
In our desire to fit into our culture, we have done people a disservice; we have not told them about their sin. “Come to Jesus and find relief from your fears… a new capacity to love… real meaning for your life… etc.” This is the contemporary jargon of the existential gospel. Yet these things are the byproducts of salvation, not the essence of it.
When we get back to the authority of Scripture, we discover that mankind is “dead in… trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Man doesn’t just have problems—he is the problem. There is no release from fears until the sinner reconciles with the God who is “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). A new capacity to love cannot be realized until the incredible mercy of God that saves sinners is truly grasped. Real meaning for life is only possible for those who have life through the process of the “new birth.” Man needs to be saved from his “lostness”—he does not need to be saved from his problems.
This is the wisdom of the Gospel to which Paul was reminding Timothy. It is the Gospel of the Scriptures, not the gospel of a sanctified psychology. Paul said, “…you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). There is wisdom concerning the true nature of salvation that can only be known through the authority of Scripture.
First of all, salvation is “through faith,” not “by faith.” It is a fundamental aspect of the Gospel that we are saved “by grace,… through faith” (Eph. 2:8). Grace is the essence of salvation. Grace is God taking the initiative to save lost sinners who are condemned to an eternal damnation apart from His incredible benevolence. Salvation is theocentric (God-centered) not anthropocentric (man-centered). It appears that we have diverged from that somewhere back down the road.
Secondly, salvation is “in Christ Jesus,” not in the quality or quantity of our faith. Faith is merely our positive response to the Gospel. Faith simply receives salvation—it is only the means by which we recognize a great opportunity. Salvation is Christ—who He is and what He has done. You see, salvation is not only by the grace of God, it is also Christocentric (Christ-centered).
In Scripture, the spotlight is on Jesus Christ, the Savior. He is the only One worthy of all glory. As we once again acknowledge the authority of Scripture, it will make us wise to the true nature of salvation—a salvation that is by the grace of God “through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).
BACK TO A CHRIST-LIKE SPIRITUALITY
Perhaps the greatest text on the authority of Scripture is found right here in this context—“All scripture is inspired by God and profitable…” (2 Tim. 3:16). All scripture is the breath of God (theopneustos), having taken form on the pages of the Bible, like the condensation of our breath on a cold glass surface. God has spoken in the Scriptures, and it seems almost redundant for Paul to also say, “and profitable.” Of course it is profitable (ophelimos—a word that means beneficial and useful). It is God’s Word!
Yet this is not a verse to simply prove our doctrine of Inspiration. It is Paul’s answer to Timothy’s quest for an effective ministry in “difficult times” (v. 1). Where do we turn when the culture is on the brink of self-destruction (vv. 2-9)? What is the answer for religious people who have lost all sense of godliness (v. 5)? For Paul, the answer is obvious. You go to the source of truth, the one divinely authoritative voice in the world. You open the pages of the Bible.
In the early verses of 2 Timothy 3, Paul describes the perilous condition of the lastdays society with no less than 19 sordid characteristics (vv. 2-5). It was a description of the indulgent culture of the Roman Empire in
Timothy’s day, but it is also an accurate reflection of our twenty-first century world. As it was then, so it is now—only worse. And there is only one thing that is able to meet this formidable challenge—the inspired Word of the living God.
Paul says that the Scriptures are profitable in four ways (v. 16). First, to teach us the ways of God. Second, to show us where we have gone wrong. Third, to get us back on the right track. And fourth, to train us in the ways of righteousness. And all of this is for the grand purpose of making us mature in Christ (v. 17). Now, isn’t that exactly what we need? Here again we have taken a wrong turn, and are heading in a wrong direction. We have lost touch with the authority of Scripture and are therefore confused about how we should live in an ungodly world.
People are generally not impressed with Christianity, primarily because they are not impressed with Christians. If we are not self-righteous snobs smothered in hypocrisy, then we are meaningless religionists blending in with the society. We are either an offense or a disappointment — and either way, we lose. What people are yearning for is authenticity. They don’t want words, they want action — a lifestyle of genuine godliness that cannot be ignored. We say we know God, but all the world sees is a “form of godliness,” which is void of reality (v. 5). However, if the world could see a truly transformed life that mirrors the qualities of Christ’s life (vv. 10-11), it would be attracted to our Savior through us. That is the point Paul is making as he encourages Timothy to strive for authenticity. What is needed is a return to Christ-like spirituality, which is produced by an authoritative Word.
This great chapter from 2 Timothy begins with the words, “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come” (v. 1), and it ends with the answer to that dilemma, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable…” (v. 16). As we begin the twenty-first century, perhaps we need to backtrack to the point where we are once again committed to the absolute authority of Scripture. It is the source of all truth and the only means of speaking a word from God to our culture. Thus, the urgent need of our times is “sola scriptura”—Scripture alone. ■